Dentist uses tools of trade in egg artistry

Posted: Friday, April 13, 2001

Charlie Detjen decorates eggs with surgical precision.

In his upstairs "egg room," the Coast Guard dentist applies threads of wax around a goose egg with the same steady hand he uses to drill teeth. He creates a spiderweb of lines before dunking the egg into its first color, yellow. By the time the egg goes through green, red and black and finally has the layers of wax removed, it will be a piece of art.

"I like eggs that look good at a distance and I like eggs that look good at 6 inches," Detjen said, holding up an egg depicting a church in shimmering gold, red and black.

Detjen makes about 200 eggs a year in his spare time. He expects to more than double that after he retires from the Coast Guard in June to become a full-time egg artist.

Cartons and boxes of egg shells fill his workroom, from thumb-sized quail eggs to six-omelette ostrich eggs. Most are hollow, their contents drained through holes in the bottom. But the one he's working on is heavy, filled with sand to help it sink into the dye bath.

Detjen learned how to make pysansky eggs from his Ukrainian mother-in-law, Katherine Leskow. For her, egg decorating was just part of the Ukrainian tradition.

"We all got together around the table with the wax on the coal stove, melting the wax, and with a straight pin," Leskow said. She passed the tradition on to her children and to Detjen when he joined the family, but only he has continued.

"He really enjoys doing them and he's not even Ukrainian, but we love him," Leskow said.

Now 79, Leskow stopped decorating eggs about eight years ago, saying her son-in-law had surpassed her. Instead, she sells his eggs to other Ukrainians at her church bazaar in Newark, N.J.

"Mine don't compare anywhere near what he does," Leskow said. "He has the easy hands, being a dentist."

The egg-decorating tools are similar to dental tools and sometimes Detjen uses an old dental tool to scratch even finer lines in the wax, like the details on angel wings for Christmas eggs. He also uses a drill-like tool from a dental laboratory to etch designs into emu eggs, carving through the deep green surface to the lighter green and then white beneath.

Detjen usually carves whales, loons and other modern Alaska themes on the emu eggs, which he sells to tourists at the Juneau Artists Cooperative downtown. He puts some modern designs on the pysansky eggs too, but his favorites are traditional geometric designs.

"It's like any other intricate work; so much of it is repetitive," Detjen said. "I think it's meditative. You do these little strokes over and over."

The colors and symbols all have meanings. Detjen made many black and white eggs before he learned that those were the colors used for eggs put on graves of children. Now he uses a spectrum of bright yellow, green, red, black and even gold.

Though decorated eggs have become closely associated with Easter, the tradition actually predates Christianity. Many of the traditional symbols Detjen draws on the eggs are actually pagan, such as the rooster for fertility. Ukrainian women made the intricate eggs to give their husbands as good luck when the men had to leave. They believed decorating many eggs helped to contain an evil serpent.

"I do my fair share to keep the serpent chained," Detjen said.

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at

A Web site with instructions for basic pysansky eggs is available at How To Make Ukranian Easter eggs.

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